Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 1)

I expected 2009 to be a relatively quiet year in Iowa politics, but was I ever wrong.

The governor’s race heated up, state revenues melted down, key bills lived and died during the legislative session, and the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Varnum v Brien became one of this state’s major events of the decade.

After the jump I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from January through June 2009. Any comments about the year that passed are welcome in this thread.

Although I wrote a lot of posts last year, there were many important stories I didn’t manage to cover. I recommend reading Iowa Independent’s compilation of “Iowa’s most overlooked and under reported stories of 2009,” as well as that blog’s review of “stories that will continue to impact Iowa in 2010.”

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Local landmark will lose the Archie Brooks name

After “an emotional public hearing,” the Des Moines City Council voted 6-0 today to restore the original name of the Archie Brooks Community Center on the south side:

Brooks, a long-time councilman who was first elected in 1975, pleaded guilty of conspiracy and misappropriation of public money stemming from his role in a payroll scandal at the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium, where he once served as board chairman. He was sentenced in January to a year and a day in prison and was ordered to repay $400,000 of the nearly $2 million lost in the scandal.

Some argue Brooks’ actions not only disgraced himself, but shamed the city, while others say decades of public service outweigh any of his admitted misdeeds.

The nice facility will once again be known as the Pioneer-Columbus Community Center.

City Council member Tom Vlassis abstained from today’s vote. He was a CIETC board member when crimes occurred at the agency and has admitted that he was a “rubber stamp” for what CIETC executives wanted.

Most Des Moines residents who contacted City Council members about the matter supported taking Brooks’ name off the community center. However, listening to those who stand by Brooks even now provides a good reminder of how well patronage can work for local political bosses.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread. Bonus points if you can explain why the CIETC scandal, involving about $2 million, has generated more intense public outrage than the billions of taxpayer dollars squandered in wasteful, no-bid federal contracts every year.

I suspect this is mainly related to “agenda-setting” by local media that put CIETC on the front page for months. Perhaps some armchair psychologist in the Bleeding Heartland community knows of other reasons why certain crimes involving public money make people angrier than others.

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Rename the Archie Brooks Community Center

Former Des Moines City Council member Archie Brooks was sentenced to one year plus one day in prison, plus a $400,000 fine and two years of probation, for his role in misusing about $2 million funds at the Central Iowa Employment Training Consortium (CIETC). Brooks was the board chairman of CIETC at the time.

Depending on how you look at it, Brooks’ sentence seems long or short. It’s long when you consider that billions of taxpayer dollars spent in Iraq can’t be accounted for, yet there is not even a serious investigation (let alone prosecution) of those who may be responsible.

On the other hand, Brooks is getting off lightly compared to Ramona Cunningham, who did not cooperate with prosecutors and got 7 years in prison for her role in the CIETC crimes. Also, the former CIETC treasurer was sentenced to two years in prison followed by three years of house arrest.

Marc Hansen’s latest Des Moines Register column notes that Des Moines City Council member Brian Meyer wants the council to discuss renaming the Archie Brooks Community Center. The south-side facility used to be called the Pioneer-Columbus Community Center.

Meyer says he’s getting a lot of feedback from south-siders, most of whom want to change the name. I agree that an elected official who abused his power to enrich a few people should not have a neighborhood landmark named after him.

Hansen nosed around the community center and found that most of the people agreed with changing the name, but the most interesting quotes in his column are from the minority who want to leave the name alone.

If you want to understand why patronage works and why political machines have been so powerful in so many cities, read this:

“I’m not going against Archie Brooks,” she said. “I like Archie. I don’t like what he did. I think he should be punished, but I don’t think he should go to prison.”

The body of his good deeds, in other words, outweighs the CIETC bad. Pazzi recalled the floods of 1993 and how the city removed water pumps from some south-side basements and sent them – where else? – west.

Somebody told Brooks, who made a few phone calls and had the pumps back where they belonged, proving that not every call he made during the flood was a bad one.

“You know what?” Pazzi said. “The south side must have wanted him back. He knocked the fireman out of the City Council.”

The fireman is Gene Phillips, who defeated Brooks in 1995. Phillips left the City Council and won a seat on the county Board of Supervisors, setting up Brooks’ return to the council.[…]

Larry Marlin […] said Brooks kept his VFW post from closing.

“If it wasn’t for his connections to the City Council,” Marlin said, “the post wouldn’t be there. He knew we were eligible for a $10,000 grant. There were a lot of times he’d tell me where to go and it was never go to hell. Sure, he made some mistakes, but he trusted the wrong people. I definitely don’t think he should get jail time.”

That’s an old-school political boss. Good for Brooks for getting those pumps back to the flooded south-side basements and keeping the VFW post open.

But we don’t need a building named after a convicted criminal.

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